Of all of the many things that I have come to love about living in the midst of the hustle and bustle that is the island of Manhattan, perhaps my favorite is the opportunity to meet people from just about every corner of the globe. Of course, in today’s ever shrinking “globalized” world, this possibility is no longer confined to just the big cities, but still living in New York – because of its stature as a “capital” of world finance, media, art and fashion – allows a person to make these diverse connections with relative ease. My time living here has let me meet and mingle with people of many different backgrounds from just about every continent save Antarctica: from almost every part of Europe to South America, Asia and the Middle East, the fact that I can now count as friends such a diverse mosaic of people has immeasurably enriched my life, and has helped me to develop what I hope to be a much broader perspective.
Encountering such diversity was not always part and parcel of my daily experience however: as a young man, I spent a significant amount of my adolescence living in a beautiful little town located right over the New York City Line from the Bronx in the southern most corner of Westchester County. This particular village, where my parents still live, was a wonderful community within which to grow up – my family had its own home with a backyard, we lived within walking distance of our local parish and parish school, and were surrounded by wonderful neighbors who quickly became friends. At that time, most of these neighbors – except for a few of the long time residents – were also from families very much like my own; they were for the most part families of white ethnic Catholic professionals just recently moved from apartments in the boroughs to the suburbs in search of their piece of the “American Dream”. As far as diversity was concerned, at that time quite frankly the most exotic that any of our neighbors got were those from France, Finland and yes – Canada – who were employed by their respective countries’ embassies, and who lived in our town for its proximity to the United Nations by train. As I grew, unlike a lot of my contemporaries whom after graduating college moved away, I remained living “in town”– at first in my parents’ home, then later in my own apartment: as the oldest in a family of significantly younger siblings, I wanted to remain close by so as not to miss any of my brothers’ “growing up years”. For this reason, it wasn’t until my late thirties that I actually moved out of Westchester County and into the city. In all that time, of course, the town I grew up in itself had changed considerably – as had the world. In fact, my move into Manhattan from the suburbs came in the years when significant numbers were making the exact opposite journey, many as a result of the tragic events of September 11, 2001.
Today, of course, marks eight years since that terrible moment in our history, and like most New Yorkers who were in Manhattan at the time I carry with me vivid memories of the experiences of that day. I remember the crystal clear blue sky broken by the dual columns of grey-black smoke; I remember the terrible confusion of the morning commute replaced by noontime with grim realization; I remember accompanying co-workers downstairs in our Chancery Building to pray together in the Chapel on the first floor and going outside to witness the multitude of people walking slowly up First Avenue in a stunned and hushed silence from lower Manhattan – some barefoot, and many still covered in white ash; I remember scrambling to find everyone a way home off an island now cut off from the rest of the world; and once home I remember anxiously waiting to hear the key in the door that signaled the return home of a loved one and anguished phone calls that continued well into the night, bringing with them word of those found and of those still missing.
In the days and weeks that followed, other things stand out in my memory: armored humvees and tanks now patrolling the streets on my walk to work as fighter jets flew patrols overhead, stories of the heroism of fellow New Yorkers who risked – and in too many cases, gave – their lives to assist others, and most heart-breakingly, I remember the posters of those still missing hanging everywhere – their faces and their names asking and begging passers by for recognition. This year, as has happened every year on the anniversary of the attacks in 2001, the names of the 2,752 men, women and children who lost their lives at the site of the World Trade Center that day will be read aloud at a ceremony at Ground Zero; these names will likewise eventually be inscribed upon bronze parapets surrounding twin memorial pools at the National September 11th Memorial being built at that site, serving fittingly as the very heart of the Memorial (link).
And of course, throughout that whole period I remember the fear.
Fear at that time was understandable – we were a city that had just experienced unimaginable loss, attacked as it were by a group of men who came from a part of the world many of us had no experience with and who were members of a terrorist organization based in one of the remotest regions on earth. Fifteen of the nineteen hijackers were from a country and culture substantially different then our own, with which most of us had only a cursory knowledge and the slightest familiarity. In weeks and months that followed that dreadful Tuesday in early September, amid attending memorial services I also remember voraciously reading anything I could get my hands on about the crisis in the Middle East and the countries and culture that these men came from, in order to try to get a grasp in some sense on what had happened. Much of the analysis that I read at that time seemed to serve as vindication of political scientist Samuel P. Huntington’s controversial theory know as the “Clash of Civilizations” (link): specifically here, Huntington’s claim that in a post-Cold War world the “age of ideology” had ended and that the 21st Century would witness a bloody “clash of civilizations” between the West and the Islamic world. Thus the events of September 11th, as well as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that followed them, were not anomalies in the relations between people from various states but somehow were instead acts we could’ve and should’ve anticipated, following some terrible logic of history.
At that time, wounded from attack and in an overwhelming environment of fear, such a pessimistic view of human relations is understandable, but as Christians we are called to be a people of hope. Indeed, no less an authority then Pope John Paul II – no stranger to war and violence he – also had developed a “theory” on relations between peoples, cultures and “civilizations”, one that he first spoke of at the United Nations in October of 1995, and later reiterated in his World Day of Peace Message in 2004 (link). Not based on the concept of “clash”, the essential element of the Pope’s analysis was a different human capacity – namely, that of love. The Holy Father reminded us that, “Christians know that love is the reason for God’s entering into relationship with man. And it is love which He awaits as man’s response. Consequently, love is also the loftiest and most noble form of relationship possible between human beings. Love must thus enliven every sector of human life and extend to the international order. Only a humanity in which there reigns the “Civilization of Love” will be able to enjoy authentic and lasting peace….I wish to repeat to women and men of every language, religion and culture the ancient maxim: Love conquers all!”
In the intervening years since that fateful day in September 2001 I have learned a great deal more about that part of the world once so remote and unfamiliar to me, as much from personal experience as from the written word. I now count as friends many people from the Middle East, and in fact one of my dearest friends was born and grew up in the same country as the majority of those who carried out those terrible acts on that dreadful day. Since I first met my friend, he and I have spent considerable time together: he has been to my home, met my family and friends, and shared meals with us; I in turn have been to his home, met his family members when they came to visit, and have shared meals with them. I have witnessed how important his religion is too him and come to admire his attentiveness to his prayer life, as he likewise respects my faith and its place in my life. When he became engaged to his fiancé while back home in Saudi Arabia, I was one of the first people he called to tell (and at a very early hour of the morning here mind you!) I have met his loved ones, seen their faces and know their names, and he has met and knows the names and faces of mine. No matter what any theoretician’s “logic of history” dictates, it would be impossible for me to imagine a circumstance where he could either wish or do me or those I love any harm, and I am certain that he feels the same. My relationship with my friend, his friends and family helped me to learn that – as important as theories and knowledge can be- it is truly only through living out a “civilization of love” in friendship that we individually can help to change the world. I realize here that I am moving from the very specific to the general, and yet I still see the wisdom of Pope John Paul II’s approach: if our aim – as it should be – is to prevent another event like the one we commemorate this day from ever happening again, there can be no more important goal to undertake. Learning about others who are different from us makes a “clash of civilizations” less likely; but becoming their friend makes it impossible.